Perhaps with an assist from HBO, NBC drew 4.5 million viewers to Saturday night’s Winter Classic, the most viewers to watch a regular-season hockey game in 36 years.
The matchup won by the Washington Capitals over the Pittsburgh Penguins was played outdoors at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since launching in 2008, the Winter Classic has been played Jan. 1 every year at an outdoor venue.
The game, however, has always been played during the day. This time, because of rain pelting the Pittsburgh area in the afternoon, the game was moved to primetime to help ensure the players’ safety.
NBC and the league were concerned the late switch — announced just about 24 hours prior to game time — from a 1 p.m. ET start to 8 p.m. would hurt ratings. The Peacock had been promoting the afternoon start for months, and its difficult to assess the affect of the time change on viewership.
The 4.5 million was a 22% increase from a year ago when 3.7 million watched the Buffalo Sabres play the Boston Bruins in Fenway Park. That was a significant decrease from 2009 when 4.4 million tuned in to see the Detroit Red Wings play the Chicago Blackhawks in Wrigley Field.
For the first time, the NHL pacted with HBO and has been airing the docuseries “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic,” which debuted Dec. 15. The four-episode series has served as promotion for the game, taking a behind-the-scenes look at both teams.